National Transportation Safety Board officials examine the damage to the Uber self-driving Volvo SC90. Picture: NTSB via Uber

Tempe, Arizona - State officials say they see no immediate need to tighten rules on the testing of self-driving cars in Arizona in reaction to a fatal accident involving an Uber autonomous vehicle that has focused attention on the safety of the new technology.

Meanwhile, Toyota has paused autonomous vehicle testing following Sunday’s accident in which an Uber self-driving SUV struck and killed a woman in Tempe.

Carmakers and tech companies are evaluating whether or not to suspend their autonomous vehicle programs in the wake of the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle. Uber said on Monday it was suspending its own program.

Toyota said it was temporarily pausing its testing on US public roads to help its test drivers, who could be experiencing “an emotional effect” from the incident.

“This ‘timeout’ is meant to give them time to come to a sense of balance about the inherent risks of their jobs,” Toyota said.

Wide open roads

Uber, along with other technology and car companies, has been testing in Arizona, which regulates autonomous vehicles with a lighter touch than neighbouring states such as California.

The state has a long history of allowing automakers to test new vehicles on its wide, open roads, and a 2015 executive order by Governor Doug Ducey paved the way for companies to test autonomous technology without interference by the legislature. More than 600 self-driving vehicles are now testing on Arizona roads, according to the governor’s office.

Director for policy and communications at the Arizona department of transportation Kevin Biesty said on Tuesday existing regulations were sufficient and that the state had no immediate plans to issue new rules.

“We believe we have enough in our laws right now to regulate automobiles,” Biesty said. “There will be issues that the legislature will have to address in the future as these become more widespread.”

No new restrictions

During the early phase of self-driving vehicle testing, Arizona refrained from adding new restrictions on companies testing on state roads, Biesty said, adding it did not believe any new regulations would add to safety.

Biesty said his agency was waiting for federal safety regulators to conclude an investigation before drawing any conclusions. Arizona’s self-driving vehicle oversight committee has not planned any meetings or actions, he said.

Also on Tuesday, Tempe mayor Mark Mitchell issued a statement saying he supported Uber’s decision to suspend testing until the end of the investigation. His office said the mayor had not asked other autonomous vehicle companies to suspend testing in the city.

'Fault has not been determined'

Full details are still forthcoming surrounding the death on Sunday night of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg after she was struck by Uber’s test vehicle, a Volvo SC90, which was operating in autonomous mode at the time.

Herzberg, who was homeless, was crossing a four-lane road with her bicycle outside of the crosswalk when she was struck.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix said it was awaiting the results of an investigation by Tempe police before reviewing whether any charges should be filed. Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are also investigating.

The Tempe police department said it “would like to reaffirm that fault has not been determined in this case”.

Serious dent

The NTSB said investigators had viewed video captured by a camera in the Uber vehicle, and were gathering data from the vehicle and Uber.

A photo posted on Twitter by the NTSB showed a serious dent in the right front corner of the car’s bonnet. Investigators will be in Tempe for the rest of the week and will not release findings until reviews of information from the scene and analysis of vehicle data are finished.

Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group office in Tempe appeared empty on Tuesday except for a security guard who said only a small security crew was working at the site since the accident. The autonomous vehicles normally filling the parking lot outside were nowhere to be seen.

The fatality is drawing fresh attention to the safety of autonomous vehicles, and the challenges of testing them on public streets. Self-driving cars have been involved in minor accidents, but nearly all have been blamed on human motorists hitting the autonomous vehicle.

'Very far from where it needs to be'

The outcome of the investigations in Arizona will be pivotal for companies racing to profit from robo-taxi services and automated delivery vehicles. Among them are General Motors, Waymo, ride services company Lyft, Ford and others.

Waymo said earlier in March it began operating self-driving vehicles in Arizona without human minders, offering rides to select customers. GM, through its Cruise Automation unit, has said it plans to launch a robo-taxi service in 2019, and said on Tuesday it stood by that timeline.

Self-driving startup nuTonomy said it was temporarily halting its testing on public roads in Boston at the city’s request.

Analysts and experts said the fatality involving Uber could slow progress toward deployment in the sector.

Technology analyst for London-based Edison Investment Research Richard Windsor said in a blog post on Tuesday: “What this incident indicates is that the state of autonomous driving (and especially Uber) is very far from where it needs to be to become market-ready.”